Morticians, or as some might call them undertakers, are professionals who deal with funeral rites, or more specifically dealing with dead bodies in preparation for a funeral, whether that be cremation, burial, or any other method. It doesn't immediately spring to mind that this profession would make a good basis for a video game, but that's exactly what Laundry Bear Games has done with A Mortician's Tale, which has just released on PC.
As the name suggests, you play as a mortician straight out of university called Charlie (full name Charlotte), who starts working at family-run business Rose and Daughters Funeral Home. In terms of the characters you meet and interact with, this almost exclusively comes through emails, whether that be from Amy, the owner of the Funeral Home; your eccentric colleague Matthew; or your old university buddy Jen who's now working in London, quite a few miles away from your American home.
The whole game sees you move between two different spaces; the room in which you prepare the bodies, and the room where the body/urn is shown to the family to pay their respects. Both are seen from an isometric view, and navigation involves a point-and-click style interaction with bodies, buttons, and more. All in all, it's not complex and what you're actually tasked with is never too taxing, as it's the narrative that takes centre stage.
This narrative is told mostly via emails and, while we won't spoil any of the story here, what you read fills you in on what's happened in the time jumps between each funeral (which can sometimes be a few months). Your own responses to the emails are never seen, nor do you actually answer any yourself, but from what you read you find about what's happened, which has big implications on what you do in the Funeral Home. Choice is limited too, and you're pretty much just there for the story Laundry Bear Games weaves.
What you actually do and how you interact with the world is rather simple. Each day in the game you get an email from your various contacts, one of which contains an assignment for the day, and depending on what your assignment is you'll have to prepare bodies in different ways. For example, an open-casket funeral requires embalming and much more exhaustive body preparations than a cremation, which is a far simpler process. If you've ever played games like Surgeon Simulator, this isn't a million miles away, as it's all about using your mouse to apply tools to different parts of the body.
Once the body is prepared in the chosen way you then have to move to the next room to see the body/urn and the deceased's loved ones. You only have to pay your respects to activate the choice to return to your private room again, but you also have the chance to hear what the friends and families have to say, giving you an insight into different processes for grieving. Like your email newsletter says, respect is key for funerals, and all you need to do is hear them out.
In fact, the whole game is about grieving, death, and a death-positive attitude. This isn't to say that it's about the joys of dying, rather it's about embracing death in the most positive and realistic way possible, and there's clearly been a lot of research done on this difficult subject and how it's handled in different societies, whether that be California's Respect After Death Act that ensures transgender people get their gender identity recognised on death certificates, or the movement to be green with funerals by using less environmentally-harmful chemicals on bodies and using biodegradable materials.
In fact, your own journey through the game explores a lot of these themes, and through some of the challenges posed to you throughout you get a sense that death is something to be treated sensitively but not with fear. Of course, not everyone will agree, but the game does its best to try and show players an unflinching view of death, one that's not morbid but is instead very real and human. It doesn't ignore grief either, but embraces it.
The soundtrack - sombre and mellow piano tones - helps to emphasise this quiet message the game gets across, as it's never bordering on the dramatic, yet gives everything that extra bit of gravitas needed to resonate with the audience. We'd advise not leaving your game running with the music playing, though, as that's a quick way to get sick of it.
While the only real issue we had in the game was a few misspellings in the text, there's one huge sticking point for us - the length. The game takes less than an hour to complete (perusal of the Steam reviews will show you players finishing it between 30 and 50 minutes) and that's the biggest issue - there's so little content. What's there is poignant and affecting, and really makes you think, but with this short amount of time with the player, containing only a few days, one might question if it's worth its £11.39 price tag, and for some, that'll surely be a no. The problem isn't that it's full of text, as visual novels have had great success with similar methods of deploying narrative, it's just that given the price we expected more game, and we couldn't help but be disappointed when the credits rolled so early.
The themes A Mortician's Tale tries to get across, and the lovely manner in which it does that, is worthy of anyone's time, but considering that time will be less than an hour, with no replayability of note, it won't be for everyone, especially when they see the price. A lot of people won't ever see what it has to offer, then, and that's a damn shame, but if you do decide it's worth the risk, we're sure you won't be disappointed.